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SC Rewind: Campbell's Many Miles

Published: July 29, 2017 10:06 am ET

Last Comment: July 30, 2017 11:27 am ET | 4 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's edition of Rewind Robert Smith offers his personal salute to harness racing icon John Campbell, who is currently having a very special weekend highlighted by his final drive at Clinton on Sunday afternoon. Much of today's Rewind recalls the earlier days of John's stellar career in the sport.

​In 1982 John stepped into the National spotlight when he became the youngest driver to win the Little Brown Jug at age 27 as he piloted Merger to a stunning victory. He also had the rare distinction in the modern age to be the horse's trainer and part owner along with occupying the driver's seat.

On Friday evening May 25, 2013, visitors to The Western Fair District were treated to a very special night of racing as the curtain was lowered on the spring racing session. It was a night of racing in some ways reminiscent of days gone by, complete with the attributes that a half-mile track brings. Special people were also in attendance.

The Feature of the evening, The Molson Pace, brought out a splendid field of eight performers who put on quite a show for the huge crowd. The winner was a U.S. invader Foiled Again who stopped the timer in 1:51.3, some 13 seconds faster than the first such event many years ago. His take of the $300,000 purse was once considered a total career earning's goal that few horses ever reached.

Crowds are not counted like they once were but it looked like a pretty good gathering. It is my guess that many were there for another reason. That year marked the 40th Annual staging of this Signature event, although rightfully at least a few asterisks are in order to tell the full story.

When the race first began back in 1972 it was then called The Labatts Blue Pace, sponsored by the longtime local Labatts Brewery of London. That first ever race was held late in the fall on October 27th, and drew a field of just five starters for what was then considered a sizable purse of $7,500. The winner was a local favourite named Key Ones Uno, owned, trained and driven by Jack Kopas of Ilderton who just passed away not too long ago. Others in the field included Canny Choice (Dr. John Findley) finishing second, Hava Good owned by Jean and Russell Miller of Dutton and driven by Greg Wright in for third, fourth was the favourite Springfield (Ron Feagan) owned by Dr. George Boyce, and the fifth place honours went to Mr Peter Ray handled by Ray McLean. Time for the mile which was also considered very good was 2:04.3 on a cool fall evening.

Present for that year's race (2013) after a very long absence was a person with special ties to the London track; that man was John Duncan Campbell. He brought much more with him than his maroon and white silks and his friendly smile. When London's Western Fair Raceway (as it was known back then) first presented racing under the lights 56 years ago in 1961, the Campbell name was front and centre. John's grandfather Duncan Campbell was the leading driver at the inaugural meeting. He was a mere 61 years of age at the time but showed his driving skills were still pretty sharp. John's father Jack, at age 30, was also an accomplished teamster who went on to win several driving titles at London over the years. Both had often driven at the Fairs before London gained Raceway status along with Jack's brother Ray.

At the age of just six, which coincidentally occurred during that 1961 inaugural season, young John made his first public appearance on the London track. Clad in a cute little set of silks made by his mother Florence (see above photo), John proudly rode with his Dad who was driving a then 31 year old Babe Grattan, an almost legendary mare who was the matriarch of all Campbell horses for many decades. They led the post parade for a special event, the details of which have long been forgotten. John was thrilled,elated and whatever other demonstrative word one might use. It was undoubtedly clear even at this tender age what career path he would eventually follow.

Noble Will heads for the wire ahead of the field to make 17-year-old John Campbell a race winner ​for the very first time in his 45-year driving career. Most of the more than 11,000 that followed were probably worth a lot more money but none more special than this one.

June 2, 1972 - Eleven years after London's opening and now 45 years ago, John Campbell then just a mere lad of 17,won his first race ever. Driving a horse named Noble Will over the London oval, he was home in front of second place finisher Cindy's Hunch (Ken Bogart) and 5 other pacers in a $1500 Claimer that carried a purse of $550. Little did anyone know, but it was the first of thousands to follow. ​

Noble Will was not exactly an Invitational type horse, but a good "learner" horse John later recalled. He was a black gelding sired by Willies Folly, out of the mare Queen Of Spades. At this point he was seven years old and sported a lifetime record of 2:09.1 taken at age four. He had entered the season with a lifetime bank account of just $3,200. On this night he paced right near his record stopping the timer in 2:10. It had to be quite a moment for John Campbell, and surely one he had dreamed about for many of his 17 years. To my knowledge just one driver from that race still remains. Oddly enough his initials too are J.C., which stands for Joseph Carr.

​A very young John Campbell (Photo courtesy London Sports HOF)

In his heyday John drove in almost every race. Owners and trainers who were fortunate enough to have his services often commented that having him was a "double edged sword", he was driving your horse plus you didn't have him driving against you !

The Campbell brothers John on the right and Jim join their father Jack for a ride on the sulky.

Despite his precocious talents and skills, John was not immediately handed the reins of every good horse in the country. Instead he made his way slowly as others in his family had done, as he carefully watched his father, grandfather and his uncle Ray along with anyone else who had something to teach. He followed the path and the theory that you need to learn the basics and the "work" part of the trade before moving on to the next step. It was a part of his early training and upbringing. In the fall of 1972 at the town track in nearby Parkhill Ont. John had the unusual privilege of competing, against his father and grandfather in the same race, a truly unique happening.

Left: Three generations of the Campbell clan. On the right John's parents Jack and Florence join Rt. Honourable Adrienne Clarkson and John as he receives the Meritorious Service Medal of Canada

Just three short years later in 1975, John won the "Labatt's Pace" with a horse named Derbys Gent owned by folks who hailed from Campbell territory. The horse's owners James and son Will Cadman of Parkhill who were dairy farmers, had entrusted John to drive as well as train their horse and on this night he scored in 2:00 flat, setting a new track record and in so doing hung out the oval's first "miracle mile". The major portion of the then $15,000 purse that the Big Race carried was quite a "feather" in young John's cap.

Now 45 years after John Campbell's first driving victory he is hanging up his famous silks and helmet to accept a new challenge as head of The Hambletonian Society. Despite his lofty career accomplishments and winning of virtually everything in sight over the last 40 + years, John's greatest attribute is that he is still John Campbell. In many ways the same young boy who launched his career 45 years ago, but now a husband, a father and a grandfather. A man who is humble,thankful and grateful for a long and rewarding career; a man of consummate class on and off the racetrack.

​Left: The three Campbells in an earlier year's photo. Jim on the left, sister Jo-Ann centre and John. Right: The Campbell brothers and their wives celebrate a victory. From left Paula, John, Jim and Daria

While not personally a golfer I have long been an admirer of the late Arnold Palmer. I recall some every meaningful words stated by him that have remained in my memory bank. They also make me think of how John has lived his life. Arnold said "Fame is never the most important part of anyone's life." ​He also said even after reaching age 80 that "nothing he had learned ever overshadowed the lessons of his parents. Always have respect for others, treat people as you would like to be treated and always be true; above all to yourself."

John's travels have carried him around the globe but I believe a part of his heart has remained entrenched in the area where he was born. In the pursuit of his dreams he has gathered much fame and undoubtedly fortune but his desire to drive in his last competitive race near his birthplace speaks volumes. I have watched John's entire career with interest and while I have met him in person just once, I feel a certain closeness to the Campbell clan. It is an association started by my late father some 75 years ago.

I have had the privilege of writing about three generations of his family; all the very finest of people. To know that those stories are still retained by the family and "unearthed" at times like these has made it all worthwhile. (Yes, a few recent tidbits have looked rather familiar). I am pleased to say based on a very old time worn saying used to assert the continuity of family characteristics "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

In closing I would like to offer my best to John and his wife Paula and all of their extended family. May you enjoy the years ahead and rest assured you will be forever loved and admired by all those you have met along life's way. ​ John's legacy will be with us forever. ​

​​Proud parents Jack and Florence are joined by ​​John on the left and brother Jim on the right at Delaware Ohio ​in this 2001 photo taken during Jug week.


John (centre) listens​. I do not have an identity for either person so if anyone can name them it would be appreciated.

July 30, 2017 - 11:27 amGreat stuff. Lucky to have

Great stuff. Lucky to have known the Campbells forever and truly enjoyed and admired John's career right from first qualifier at Western Fair Raceway. It is paralleled to the retirement of Wayne Gretzky, or as I will imagine that of Roger Federer. He has set the mark so high, on and off the track -- a true friend and fan!
The guy on the right is Randy Fulmer the guy on the left is on the tip of my tongue.

July 30, 2017 - 9:03 amA longtime friend of mine,

A longtime friend of mine, Larry Pollard emailed to suggest that the person in the photo (on the right) with John Campbell may be Randy Fulmer who also learned his early lessons at Windsor Raceway.

July 29, 2017 - 5:57 pmVery nice Robert. I believe

Jack Darling SAID...

Very nice Robert. I believe that is Randy Fulmer in his colours standing beside John.

July 29, 2017 - 1:25 pmWell well written Robert. A

Well well written Robert. A great story about "Our Legend" John Campbell.
John is a wonderful man.
Tomorrow in Clinton will say it all. A crowd that Clinton has never seen before. I'll be there.
Good job Robert.

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